Online voting a possibility

With voter participation rates reaching modern-day lows throughout western democracies, the question seems an obvious one: Why not introduce online voting? How hard can it be? After all, the internet is deemed secure enough to handle online banking and shopping.

With visions of electronic hanging chads and stuffed virtual ballot boxes in their heads, the bureaucrats who administer federal elections have so far been reluctant to give voters the ability to mark their X digitally. Now, Canada – with a voter turnout of 58.8 percent in the 2008 general election – is taking the first steps toward change.

By 2013, Elections Canada – the federal agency responsible for conducting elections and applying electoral law – is expected to begin testing the security of its online system.

“The plan is to begin with an electronic registration process, and then move to i-voting,” says John Enright, spokesman for Elections Canada. “It's likely we'll test the voting system during a federal by-election, using Canadian military personnel who are stationed abroad as a test group.”

The initiative follows survey findings that 57 percent of the 9.7 million eligible Canadians who didn't vote in the 2008 general election blamed “everyday situations” – including being on holiday, being too busy, family obligations or work schedules – for their failure to cast ballots. Fifty-eight percent said they'd likely use the internet to register, and 54 percent said they'd likely vote electronically. Most notably, almost two-thirds of non-voting young Canadians – the group that most concerns Elections Canada – said they'd welcome online voting.

In January, Elections Canada and Carleton University's Canada-Europe Transatlantic Dialogue collaborated to organize a workshop on online voting. The meetings examined previous electronic voting trials held at the municipal level in three Canadian communities – Markham, Peterborough and Halifax – and European jurisdictions, including Estonia, Geneva and the United Kingdom.

At the workshop, Rennie Molnar, Canada's deputy chief electoral officer, said that the integrity of the electoral system remains paramount. “Any new voting method must be secure, accurate, reliable and auditable,” he told the workshop audience.

Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Law, issued a word of caution in an op-ed piece published in The Toronto Star. “Democracy depends upon a fair, accurate and transparent electoral process with outcomes that can be independently verified,” he wrote. “Many of [the elements of paper-based voting] are currently absent from internet voting, which is subject to any number of possible disruptions… [including] denial-of-service attacks that shut down the election process, counterfeit websites, phishing attacks, hacks into the election system or the insertion of computer viruses that tamper with election results.”

Geist concludes that caution remains the prudent course. With Elections Canada committed to nothing beyond putting its toe in the online water in three years time, it appears that the agency is taking as cautious a route as possible.

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